Special: it was the flood disaster of 1953 that drew the attention of the then young Sicilian Carmelo Sindoni to our country. “I heard about it, looked into the Netherlands and when I spoke to a former fellow villager who had settled there, my interest was completely aroused,” he says. “I asked him if that country was also something for me. He thought so, and I left for the Netherlands in 1971.”
Carmelo first lived with his former fellow villager in the Bollenstreek and later with a landlady in Noordwijkerhout. He started his working life at a pottery factory in Sassenheim. After also having a steel factory as an employer, the catering industry became his final destination. He held various positions at Motel Sassenheim, from waiter to eventually chef. “I also worked at a caterer in Katwijk. The local Fiat dealer Seinpost was located nearby. At that time I had my sights set on a sports car. At first I thought of an Opel GT, but that had been out of production for several years. So it didn’t necessarily have to be an Italian car, because the engine of the first car I had, a Fiat 850, broke down after just a few months. Then I had a Mini and I liked it better.” Still, Carmelo entered the Fiat showroom when he saw a beautiful green X1/9. “It was brand new and therefore not cheap with a price tag of 18 or 19 grand. My landlady’s son came to my rescue: he guaranteed the loan I applied for from the municipal credit bank in Leiden. I was able to trade in the Mini, so I still had to pay NLG 14,350.”
Special Fiat X 1/9 travel bags.
The arrival of the child almost meant the end of X 1/9
Proud as a peacock, Carmelo drove out of the showroom with his 08-ST-85 registered, verde metallic X1/9 Series Speciale on August 18, 1977. A year later he met Susan. Not because of the Fiat, but because they played on the same bowling team. They married and a while later their son Louis was born.
“That caused a problem, because the X1/9 was a pure two-seater,” says Carmelo. “Because I was also moving from Katwijk to Zoetermeer, I decided to sell the Fiat. However, the offers I received were so low that I changed the plan: no sale, but suspend it here and store it with family in Italy. When we went there on holiday in the summer – two days by train – he was there for us. We first drove here with Susan’s Volkswagen Polo. When that car became too small due to further family expansion, we bought a Lada.”
Series Special extra luxuriously equipped
Driving the X1/9 in his home country Italy was no problem for Carmelo. “A year after the purchase, we already drove it to Italy. That was powerful. On the German autobahn it easily reached 175 km/h and in my native village I had a lot of attention. In any case, I have always enjoyed driving the Fiat, and I still do now. I can still remember the first ride. Man, I was so proud. I never could have dreamed that I would become the owner of a sports car again, and a new one at that. As a Series Speciale it was also extra luxuriously equipped. The only option was a radio cassette recorder, everything else was standard.”
Even the seats of the Fiat X 1/9 are still very beautiful.
However, ‘t Groentje, as the X1/9 is called in the Sindoni household, did not survive its stay in the sunny south unscathed. “The Netherlands is flat, unlike Sicily, because everything there is sloping. Anyway, I once parked the car with the roof open. Not much later, some local youth crept in and released the handbrake. When I came back, the car was gone. I found him a little further on, in a ditch. I’ll report it to the carabinieri. The officer on duty wrote in the report that the Fiat had driven into the ditch on its own. That wasn’t right, but yes, the man was related to those children…”
The lion in the Fiat X 1/9 is a mascot.
Italian stay kept X 1/9 stainless
Apart from that, the Italian stay has been good for the car: due to the limited use, the mileage did not increase much (after 45 years there is less than 120,000 kilometers on the odometer) and the climate ensured that rust hardly had a chance. “That was different here. Within a year I had to have it partially repainted due to emerging paint blisters. But on the other hand, the engine and upholstery are still completely original.”
It may be that Fiat had other things on its mind at the time of the introduction of the X1/9 than proper rust protection. After all, in 1972, in addition to the X1/9, the small 126 and mid-range 132 were also born. Perhaps that is why the manufacturer outsourced the production of the X1/9 to Bertone. The car would be produced there until its end in 1988. The X1/9 even gradually became the backbone for the design house. After the demise of the targa, things quickly went downhill for Bertone…
First the Fiat X 1/9 had a 1.3, later it became a 1.5.
From Fiat to Bertone
The story of the Fiat X1/9 begins in 1969, when the Autobianchi Bertone Runabout study model appeared at the Turin Motor Show. This concept car should pave the way for the successor to the outdated 850 Spider. In September 1972 the time came: the sports car based on the Fiat 128 made its world debut in Sicily. Unlike the 128, the power source is mounted behind the front seats. That makes it much more playful to drive than the open 850, which could often be tricky with ‘everything in the back’. The press and public are immediately enthusiastic. The car has modern and attractive lines, offers excellent performance thanks to the Lampredi engine and is attractively priced. It will later turn out that the Bertone creation is also quite safe. Besides the large Mercedes-Benz S-class W116, only this compact Italian meets the American crash requirements of 1975. The US is therefore an important sales market for the X1/9. The majority of the approximately 166,000 units produced (which still makes the X1/9 one of the most successful mid-engine sports cars) find an owner on the other side of the pond.
In the front of the X 1/9 the signatures of the development team members, including Gandini’s.
Globally we distinguish four series X1/9. The first (1972-1975) has a 75 hp 1.3 on board, linked to a four-speed gearbox. Thanks to the low weight (840 kilos), a top speed of 170 km/h is possible. Small changes to the bodywork along the way keep the design fresh. In 1976 a more drastic modification was made, also under the skin. To counteract the regularly occurring vapor lock (air in the fuel system with warm engines), the carburetor is given extra cooling. The ignition is also being revised. It costs the engine 2 hp, but reliability increases.
Carmelo’s X1/9 Series Speciale comes from this second series. This promotional model was on the order lists from 1976 and was released on the occasion of the 50,000th X1/9. Specific features: waffle striping all around (because respraying was required quite quickly, the striping was missing for a while: it was not in stock), a black plastic front spoiler with yellow Carello fog lights, special upholstery, a modified dashboard, the type designation on the rear roof pillar and a sticker on the right front screen with the flag of the country where the car was delivered and the signature of Nuccio Bertone.
After 1982 continued as Bertone X 1/9
The next major changes took place in 1979. From then on, the 1.5 engine from the then fresh Ritmo is used. It is linked to a five-speed gearbox and produces 86 hp, good for 180 km/h. External features: sturdy American bumpers and a more comfortable interior thanks to new furniture. A decade after its introduction, however, the years for the X1/9 seem to be slowly but surely counting. Builder Bertone, for whom the X1/9 is of great commercial importance, therefore took over the model from Fiat in 1982, with the result that the creation was called Bertone X1/9. In the eighties, developments, whether legally prescribed or not, continued. This is how fuel injection and the catalytic converter are introduced.
Just as in the decade before with the Special Series and, for example, the deep black Lido with a white Alcantara interior (indeed: named after the Parisian nightclub), several promotional models appear, such as the Sunshine and the Grand Finale. These are attempts to attract customers to the semi-open Fiat instead of, for example, the fresh Toyota MR2. The last promotional model meant the end for the X1/9 in July 1988. That does not apply to Carmelo’s car. It has been in our country for quite some time and is still in regular service.
Son Louis is also a fan of the model
Like today, because we are at ‘t Groentje to portray him and his caring boss. Carmelo clearly enjoys all the attention. Occasionally he even becomes somewhat emotional about it. “That car, that is our life,” he sighs as he wipes away a tear. Carmelo can rightly be proud. The car alone is beautiful, but it is the details that really make it personal, such as the lion on the dashboard that serves as a talisman; the matching and nowadays quite rare suitcase set and the green paint that has a remarkable attraction to flies. Of course, all journeys undertaken with it also play a role. In addition to Italy, there were trips to Denmark, Sweden, France, the Czech Republic and the Nürburgring. This was usually with Carmelo behind the wheel, but son Louis also likes to drive it. He also became infected with the X1/9 virus. Not only does he have a blue X1/9, he is even chairman of the Fiat Bertone X1/9 Club Netherlands. Carmelo’s wife Susan prefers to ride along rather than taking the wheel herself. “I think it shifts too tightly,” she explains. “Well, everything is still mechanical,” says Carmelo. “This is real driving, not like it is today.”
Carmelo bought the car new in 1977, when he was 32 years old. Now the car is 46 and he is 78. “Yes, 78 years young,” he jokingly corrects us. Although he traveled back to his native country last summer, Louis confides to us that Carmelo’s health is starting to become a bit fragile at times. That doesn’t matter for the X1/9, because it stays in the family. As sure as pasta is Italian.
This article was previously published in AutoWeek Classics 02 2023.